The challenge to improve is coming even from some of the most repressive countries in the world.
Every four years, each one of the 134 member countries in the United Nations gets a human rights review. The U.S. just had its turn.
At a hearing held May 11, 2015, 117 of the member nations spoke up. Each representative got only 65 seconds to speak, but it still added up to about three and a half hours of statements.
Guess what? The United States did not get a glowing review.
Nations repeatedly called out the U.S. for police violence and especially systemic racial discrimination by the police. Many of them also identified the continued use of the death penalty as a human rights concern as well as the ongoing operations at Guantánamo Bay. (In its previous review in 2010, the U.S. committed to “find a solution for all persons detained at Guantánamo Bay" — yet as of January 2015, 122 men are still kept at the facility.)
There's something deeply disturbing about countries often considered to be repressive or violent holding up a human rights mirror for the U.S. to look into.
Here's a quick paraphrasing:
Egypt: "Investigate excessive use of force by police and put an end to such practices. ... Abolish practices that target Muslim minorities at airports and that criminalize homelessness."
Chad: "Chad considers the United States of America to be a country of freedom, but recent events targeting black sectors of society have tarnished its image."
China: "Recommends addressing the root cause of racial discrimination and eliminating the frequently occurring excessive law enforcement against ... minorities. Stop massive surveillance activities both inside and outside its territories to avoid violating the right to privacy of its citizens."
Pakistan: "We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in the U.S. and make the following recommendations. ... Use armed drones within existing international legal regimes. End police brutality against African-Americans and rectify the systems that systematically discriminate against them. Prosecute all CIA operatives held responsible for torture. Combat Islamophobia and racial profiling."
North Korea: We are gravely concerned at the U.S. violations of human rights and recommend that the U.S. investigate CIA torture crimes, take measures to investigate civilian killings during the military invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq ... and take measures against racial discrimination.
There's lots more. You can listen to it yourself here.
OK, so maybe it's a bit ironic to have personal freedom protections questioned by North Korea. But country after country echoed the same concerns:
- Systematic abuse of police power especially against minorities and people of color
- Continued use of the death penalty
- Failure to close the Guantánamo Bay facility
- Inadequate protections for migrant workers and indigenous people
At least 36 of the 117 nations criticized the continued use of the death penalty and especially the disproportionate number of African-Americans sentenced to die.